Get Inside the Mind of a Theremin Master
Electronic artist and thereminist Dorit Chrysler talks about teaching kids how to play theremin, and collaborating on ADULT’s new record.
Dorit Chrysler playing. Image by Miriam Daalsgard. All images courtesy the artist.
If Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin are two of the undisputed masters of synthesis, then Dorit Chrysler is the sonic equivalent when it comes to the theremin. A composer, producer, and singer, Chrysler is the co-founder of the New York Theremin Society and founder of the first school for theremin, KidCoolThereminSchool. So as much as the theremin is a tool in Chrysler’s electronic instrument arsenal, she's also one the most visible thereminists spreading the gospel of this mysterious sounding instrument, which is basically played by massaging thin air.
Not surprisingly, Chrysler is a fixture at the music, art, and technology gathering, Moogfest. This is appropriate given the festival’s namesake, Bob Moog, built his reputation on theremins before making his first modular synthesizers back in the ‘60s. The Austrian-born, New York-based Chrysler, on the other hand, worked a reverse trajectory to the theremin—getting into electronic music at a young age, then coming to the theremin later in her career. The instrument, though not the centerpiece of Chrysler’s recordings, only adds to her music’s darkly hypnotic atmosphere.
“My first conscious memory is standing on an Austrian rooftop at age 13 listening on a walkmen to Kraftwerk and Throbbing Gristle for the very first time—a life-changer,” Chrysler tells The Creators Project, while hanging out with the band ADULT at the Carolina Theater. “Shortly thereafter I started my first new wave band, experimenting with keyboards, the first being a little Casio. The joy of the arpeggio opened a new universe to my ears. It took a while before I could lay my hands on a real synth, though.”
Chrysler’s door into the world of the theremin was opened by her friend Lary 7, a New York-based musician and filmmaker. After inviting Chrysler to his house one day, Lary 7 showed her a theremin he was repairing, then demonstrated the playing technique.
Something clicked within Chrysler, who refused to rest until she mastered some notes. She saw in the theremin a lot of underappreciated sonic potential, and had to “get to the bottom of it,” as she explains. For Chrysler, this involved dedicating herself to the theremin.
“With the theremin, you surrender to a microtonal universe consisting within a one-inch movement of your hand towards the pitch antenna,” she explains. “[You] sculpt and chisel every note above the volume rod—close your eyes and perk your ears and you shall be rewarded.”
“For me a good thereminist is a player who focuses on the expressive potential of the instrument,” she adds. “No other electronic instrument can sound so devastatingly emotional, or shall we say, even hysterical at times. Run with it and find your own voice. Supposedly, Lev Termen, its inventor, said, ‘if you put your soul in it, you are worthy of playing the theremin.’”
Naturally, this theremin expertise got Chrysler noticed by Moog Music and the Moogfest programmers. At Moogfest 2014, Chrysler did several theremin performances. It was there that she caught the attention of ADULT.
“It so happened that we were starting to work on a record that was going to be collaborative, and we invited six artists to live and work with us,” says ADULT’s Nicola Kuperus. “When we saw her perform at Moogfest in 2014, we wondered if she would come and do this with us.”
“But it was scary because they invited me to live with them, and I get off the airplane and got into their car, and I thought, ‘Well, I don’t really know them,’” says Chrysler, laughing. “But there was only one choice: get to know them. And now we are best friends.”
ADULT recorded two songs with Chrysler for the new album. As Miller says, one of the trio’s recordings is electronic pop, while the other is more abstract. Because ADULT have an all analog studio in their Detroit “bunker,” Chrysler also jammed on other electronic instruments during the writing and recording process.
“The theremin is not a main element in either song,” Miller says. “In the second song, the more abstract one, we wanted the theremin reversed. If you don’t know that it’s been reversed, you wouldn’t know that it’s a theremin.”
“One of the main issues I have is that with the records I make, I write all of the music, I record everything, and I use all kinds of instruments and do the vocals, but the theremin gets the most attention,” Chrysler says. “So it kind of narrows my music to that focus. But the thing is, I kind of don’t mind because I feel that the theremin needs all of the attention it can get because it’s still such an underestimated instrument. So I permit it.”
Chrysler and ADULT’s collaboration didn’t end with the forthcoming album, either. When they realized they would be at Moogfest 2016 (ADULT to perform, and Chrysler to hold theremin workshops), ADULT decided to invite Chrysler to play with them. But this was no ordinary musical performance. Kuperus and Miller had recently shot a trilogy of surreal horror films, The Three Grace(s), which they screened at the Carolina Theatre in Durham.
True to the silent cinema origins of ADULT’s films, the three improvised a score for the screening. Situated at the front of the cinema on either side of the seats, the three crafted an abstract electronic soundtrack that would not sound like the spooky theremin film soundtracks of old.
“I mostly improvised, and I felt so comfortable with ADULT because I knew them,” says Chrysler. “I think it’s every thereminist’s dream to play in a hall or something. It’s very cliche but it can be embraced if you go beyond it. I did a lot of looping, creating clusters. This is something that really takes practice so you can listen and respond to each other.”
Before and after the screening, Chrysler taught kids (and adults) how to play the theremin at Moogfest with her KidCoolThereminSchool workshops. The workshops were a lot of work, but Chrysler was happy to share her theremin expertise with children.
“When I teach theremin, I always throw ten theremin players together, children or adults, and that is really healthy because most of them have never really played with anyone else, nor do they want to, and they’re forced to listen to and interact with each other,” she says. “Most of the time they are somewhere else afterward, and they’ve gained something from the experience.”
So whether you take up theremin playing or simply listen to Chrysler’s music, be prepared to surrender. An entire microtonal universe awaits.
Click here to check out more of Dorit Chrysler’s work.